Analysis of the third kind
29 November 2014 03:51 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Malema marches for economic slavery

  • Ivo Vegter
Every time Julius Malema utters the phrase “economic freedom”, I expect a chorus of “Lies! Lies!” But the silence is deafening. By appropriating this phrase and perverting its meaning, the young fire-breather is fanning the flames of revolution. He will fail his followers and ruin this country.

“Propaganda, to be effective, must be believed. To be believed, it must be credible. To be credible, it must be true.” So said Hubert H Humphrey, who served as US vice president under Lyndon B Johnson.

I beg to differ. It is sufficient for it to be believed to be true. One of the most infamous propagandists in history agrees. Adolf Hitler once noted that: “Propaganda must not serve the truth, especially insofar as it might bring out something favourable for the opponent.”

To prevent the risk that propaganda is shown not to be true, a master propagandist must suppress this fact. That is why Hitler established the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels, to govern the press and silence the truth.

To be fair to Humphrey, American vice presidents cannot suppress the media, because of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, so in his country, the actual truth of propaganda is more important than it was for Hitler.
In any case, showing a phrase to be false should be sufficient to debunk it as empty rhetoric and political propaganda.

Rare, however, is the outcry when ANCYL president Julius Malema uses the phrase “economic freedom”. Some even see his use of it as a legitimate disagreement with those who have advocated economic freedom all along.
Jack Bloom, the DA leader in the Gauteng, who penned a column calling him out, is the exception that proves the rule.

This is dangerous. As Hitler's nemesis, Winston S Churchill said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

Let's grant Malema the following, from his “Economic freedom in our time” speech delivered at Wits University in August: “We did not fight for blue lights. We did not fight for ministerial posts. We fought to bring bread to the table. And once [sic] we fail to bring bread to the table, the struggle is not over.”

He might sound awfully hypocritical when he says this, but he was careful to remove his Breitling watch first, and the sentiment can stand on its own merits. Poverty and unemployment are indeed deeply troubling economic problems. They can indeed be attributed to some extent (though not entirely) to the historic oppression and dispossession of a majority of South Africans. They are very much worth a continuation of the struggle ethos.

“You can lock us up. … We will see economic freedom from prison,” he added, deftly invoking the halo of Mandela. This flourish hints at the rhetorical skill he commands. And he needs it, because by “economic freedom” he does not mean the same thing most everyone else does.

Freedom, in common English usage, means the absence of coercion. You are free if nobody – and especially no government – can lawfully impose on your person or property without your consent.

As Bloom correctly puts it, “Economic liberty is the freedom to produce, trade and consume any goods and services acquired without the use of force, fraud or theft. It requires free markets protected by the rule of law and entrenched property rights.”

He adds: “Various studies show that countries with higher economic freedom rank better on virtually every indicator of well-being. They have higher living standards, better health and less corruption.”

One of the most thorough papers on the subject is Hanke and Walters, Economic Freedom, Prosperity, and Equality: A Survey. It uses several widely-accepted measures of economic freedom, but notes that they all have the following in common:

  • Secure rights to property (legally acquired);
  • Freedom to engage in voluntary transactions, inside and outside a nation's borders;
  • Freedom from governmental control of the terms on which individuals transact; and
  • Freedom from governmental expropriation of property (eg, by confiscatory taxation or unanticipated inflation).

A review of such studies by John Hanson starts by saying: “That economic freedom promotes affluence is Adam Smith’s most important principle.”

Malema, deliberately or otherwise, confuses the two. When he says “economic freedom”, he means “affluence” itself, rather than merely its most reliable cause.

He argues that because poverty and unemployment remain disproportionately borne by the recently liberated black majority, the youth of today must make it the over-arching fight of their generation to attain “economic freedom”.

It is true that the facts of his case are misleading. When he cites black ownership of South Africa's assets, for example, he typically points to black ownership of JSE-listed companies. He does not count institutional investors, by far the biggest capital owners on the JSE, even though many of their members, through unions, pension funds and insurance policies, are black. He does not consider state-owned enterprises and government-owned land to be “black-owned”, although under Apartheid he would most certainly have called them “white-owned”. He does not recognise the vast informal economy, which thrives largely because government is unable to suppress it through licensing, tax and regulation.

He discounts the rise of the black middle class. He ignores the fact that it is neither necessary nor desirable for everyone to be investors, just like we needn't all be doctors, or engineers, or inventors, or shopkeepers.

These may not be minor quibbles, but they won't be heard in the face of Malema's over-arching allegation: many blacks remain poor compared to many whites. This is impossible to dispute. It does not matter how simplistic this view is, or how unhelpful it is as a guide to economic policy. It rings true, and that is enough for a discontented audience to accept Malema's answer as a clarion call by a brave, revolutionary leader.

That clarion call, the term “economic freedom” itself, is Malema's biggest fallacy. It may be made deliberately in order to mislead, or mistakenly because of never having studied economics, but it is patently false.

By “economic freedom”, Malema means nationalisation. He means expropriation. He means redistribution of wealth. He means the exact opposite of the four principles cited by Hanke and Walters.

Malema says “economic freedom”, in order to whip up his audience for a revolutionary fight. But he means “economic slavery”, in which the property produced by one person is taken from them by force and given to another, perhaps on a basis no stronger than the colour of their skin.

There is, of course, no merit in his call for revolutionary redistribution, but that is an argument for another day. It suffices to note Hansen's ominous warning about “the potential for anti-market and anti-reform elements to exploit economic adversity”.

Whatever the merits of his political agenda, Malema ought to be honest: he is not calling for “economic freedom” by any definition of the phrase. We, the lovers of freedom, should resent the appropriation and perversion of these words by a socialist revolutionary.

Whenever Malema says “economic freedom,” he ought to be challenged, clearly, loudly and directly. His propaganda ought not to be effective, because it is not true. DM



  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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